Cinema Review: Uncut Gems | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Uncut Gems

Studio: A24
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Dec 12, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Uncut Gems finds the Safdie brothers perfecting the mode of thriller they worked in on Good Time, mostly by multiplying the number of bad decisions, races against the clock, and lunatic schemes on display. They’ve quickly become masters of a variation on the thriller that feels more like a horror movie in terms of the actual viewing experience; it’s a kind of torture, but one that so invigoratingly recreates the rush of a gambling binge that you can’t help but ride it, praying that it doesn’t end because you’re terrified of how it might.

Credit is due not only to the Safdies but to their collaborators, as well. Their frequent co-writer and co-editor, Ronald Bronstein, helps the brothers reach career highs in both fields. And Daniel Lopatin’s score grows beyond the urgency of his Good Time work (credited there as his recording alias, Oneohtrix Point Never), keeping the action moving at an anxiety-inducing pace but also hypnotically slowing things down whenever it’s time to take stock or (briefly) reckon with one’s failures. You can almost close your eyes and just listen; Lopatin’s work here contains more drama and narrative momentum than most films.

All that said, the Safdies’ greatest strength, and the source of their best collaborations, is their visionary and counterintuitive work casting their films, nowhere more apparent than the work done by their lead, Adam Sandler. Every few years, when Sandler steps out of his Brill-Dugan-Coraci bubble, we’re reminded that “Adam Sandler can actually act!,” particularly when a Paul Thomas Anderson or a Noah Baumbach applies Sandler’s sweet-manchild-with-a-temper persona to less cartoonish circumstances. The Safdies, however, attempt something with a higher degree of difficulty: instead of crafting an awards contender around endearing Sandler, they’ve done it with annoying-voice, abrasive Sandler (think The Waterboy, Little Nicky, or That’s My Boy). It feels like they’ve accepted an impossible bet, or are at least antagonizing critics.

Like a number of those made by Sandler’s Howard Ratner in the film, though, the gamble pays off enormously. Howard is a wheedling, motor-mouthed hustler who isn’t nearly as ingratiating as he might think he is but probably wouldn’t care if someone told him that. The performance is a technical feat as much as an aesthetic one; one feels exhausted on Sandler’s behalf, his work being equal parts athletic and creative. Howard never looks beyond his next move, doing whatever he thinks he needs to survive from moment to moment, which isn’t the simplest task considering the amount of money he owes various bookies and loan sharks.

Sandler is supported by a cast full of first-time actors and established performers playing amusingly against type. In the former category, Kevin Garnett shows legitimate chops playing a slightly younger version of himself still playing for the Boston Celtics (in a 2012 playoff series that works a lot like the Dodgers-Mets matchup in Bad Lieutenant), while Julia Fox gradually works her way up to co-lead status by the end of the film. In the latter, Idina Menzel provides counterprogramming against her own Frozen II behemoth as the wife that’s lost all patience with and affection for Howard, and Eric Bogosian throws back to his Under Siege 2-villain days as the hardass loan shark that Howard literally can’t get away from. Add in Lakeith Stanfield getting looser and less reactive than he’s recently been, sports radio troll-god Mike Francesa believably playing a bookie, and The Weeknd getting in a shoving match with Howard, and ideas about actors’ personas begin to disintegrate.

This is exhilarating filmmaking, which is hopefully endorsement enough to get you past the difficulty of actually sitting through it. If you’re prone to empathetic dread on behalf of doom-courting risk-takers, this will take weeks off your life. As someone that fits that description, I eagerly await giving up a few more of those weeks the next time I see Uncut Gems.


Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 4/10


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